COVID-19: A student’s perspective on the e-learning digital divide

PUBLISHED: Wed, 08 Jul 2020 07:46:29 GMT
Image supplied by Curtin University Dubai

About the Author: Sandile Nkala is a final year Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting student and the former Student Council President at Curtin University Dubai. Over the last few years, Sandile has spent time speaking and mentoring young women in the UAE. She has also served as a Student Brand Ambassador for Curtin University, Hunter Foods, 6th Street, Uninest Student Residences and Self Defined; a South African organisation with a movement that strives to empower young women to make a difference.

Over a billion students, in 191 countries are supposedly distance learning. Education took quite an interesting turn this year, as virtual tutoring, video conferencing and online learning software instantly became the new normal.  These drastic measures were necessary to control the Covid-19 infection rates. However, we need to address the ‘elephant’ in the room. 

One cannot deny the necessity of e-learning during such a testing time. Even so, the elephant in the room is the ‘digital divide’. It can be seen globally that the ability to fully participate in e-learning is tied to socio-economic status. US President Lyndon Johnson once said, ‘Education is the key to opportunity in our society, and the equality of educational opportunity must be a birth right of every citizen’. Yet, the UN has reported that 830 million students, fighting for an opportunity for a better life in our society, are currently locked out of the digital classroom. For instance, 90% of students in sub-Saharan Africa reportedly do not have access to a computer with 82% unable to get online. This is illustrated by Mandlenkosi Mswela, an Accounting university student in Zimbabwe who expressed how concerned he was about the possibility of repeating a semester, as students are currently being tutored via WhatsApp and PDF documents due to little or no access to the internet. On the other end of the spectrum, over 90% of students in the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK have access to a computer or internet at home. An IT university student in Sweden, Benjamin Gafvelin mentioned that the change to e-learning was in fact quite painless and that his biggest challenge was merely completing courses that consist of group work. 

Realistically, the 830 million students currently locked out of the digital classroom face the possibility of repeating a grade and failing to graduate in time or worse, being socially promoted without having mastered the material that was to have been taught this year. Learning discontinuity among students in underdeveloped nations and low-income communities is the biggest threat we face by failing to address this alarming digital gap. Fortunately, some nations and educational institutions across the world have taken steps towards bridging the digital gap. For instance, the South African government has already begun to implement strategic policies and resources to ensure that students in low-income communities are not deprived of a right to equitable education. It is a work in progress, but unquestionably a step in the right direction. Nobesuthu Mnkandla, a law university student in South Africa praised the efforts of the nation by saying, ‘Universities have distributed laptops and 30GB data bundles to cater to students who have little or no access to e-learning. Also, universities have decided to post studying material and deliver USB flash drives to areas with no internet coverage. This has not been easy, the Student Representative Councils are doing their best to ensure no students are left behind.’ Effort such as this go a long way to show that it is indeed possible to find ways to mitigate the learning discontinuity threat.

The Covid-19 crisis highlighted a major issue in an era where we value equity in education. The e-learning digital gap is indeed real. However, with the appropriate policies and resources in place, the 830 million students locked out of the digital classroom can continue to fight for an opportunity to a better life in our society. For this reason, concerned educational institutions, governments and parties are urged to take the necessary action to give these students a fighting chance. 



Mandlenkosi Mswela. National University of Science and Technology. Zimbabwe.
Benjamin Gafvelin. KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Sweden.
Nobesuthu Mnkandla. Rhodes University. South Africa.
Lowa Heimer. Påhlmans Handelsinstitut (Business Institute), Paralegal Higher Vocational Education (HVE). Sweden.
Angelica Feliz. SP Jain School of Global Management. Australia. 
Hala Haytham. Curtin University Dubai. United Arab Emirates.
Terri Golding. University of Pretoria. South Africa.
Lisa Dube. University of Pretoria. South Africa.
Takudzwanashe Mujawo. Middlesex University Dubai. United Arab Emirates.
Simbarashe Nyakambangwe. Coventry University. United Kingdom.

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